February 22, 2010

Blacks in valley share history of struggle

Nicole C. Brambila
The Desert Sun

John Carlos (Marilyn Chung The Desert Sun)

Black Americans began moving to the Coachella Valley in the 1940s, wooed by the promise of better jobs and wages. Many of the first were cotton farmers — Texas transplants who first lived on John Nobles' ranch, where they built more than just a home. They created community. For most, their stories aren't retold in textbooks, but their contributions are celebrated during Black History Month in February. Here are their stories.

John Carlos sprinted for a medal and into history.

In 1968, during the Olympic medal ceremony for the 200-meter dash in Mexico City, gold medalist Tommie Smith and Carlos, the bronze medalist, bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists — a sign of solidarity — to protest racial inequality at home.

“I don't think anybody took into account that we were very nonviolent in our action,” said Carlos, 64, who will retire from Palm Springs Unified School District in 2011 after 23 years with the agency. “It resurrected people's conscience.”

That act ushered in a political firestorm and death threats.

The International Olympic Committee subsequently suspended Smith and Carlos from the U.S. team and banned them from the Olympic Village.

After his track career — and a couple years playing professional football — Carlos became an in-school suspension supervisor at Palm Springs High School and track and field coach at Palm Desert High School, he said.

In 2003, Carlos was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

“I think young and old school know about it. I think what they need to know about more than anything is activism,” Carlos said. “Somebody has to be an activist to have progression.”

The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II fought two wars. One against the Axis powers overseas, and the other against racism at home.

From 1941-46, more than 940 pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., and commissioned, having received their pilot wings, according to tuskegeeairmen.org.

Dr. Robert Higginbotham was among them. He followed in his older brother's footsteps and enlisted in 1944.

“I felt I had an obligation, a duty to serve my country,” said Higginbotham, 84, a Rancho Mirage resident. “I felt I would do my part and no one would have to say I was drafted.

“Regardless of what anybody says, it's my country.”

Enlisting before President Harry S. Truman integrated the military in 1948 meant facing discrimination and racism.

His first taste of it came on the train ride to Mississippi when he and other black soldiers in uniform were threatened with arrest if they did not give up their seats for white soldiers. They stood the remaining eight hours of the trip.

“I didn't have too much exposure to hateful discrimination and segregation,” he said. “We never left the farm except to go to church.

“It's irritating to have to deal with a situation where time and time again, you have to prove yourself because of the color of you skin.”

After the war, Higginbotham became an orthopedic surgeon with a private practice in Los Angeles.

John Nobles' ranch

Roberta Smith isn't shy about sharing her age. — she'll turn 104 in March.

The centenarian wasn't the first to move to the valley — blacks first started coming en masse in the 1940s — but she's among the oldest living.

Smith, the granddaughter of a slave and the daughter of a sharecropper, moved to Indio in 1951, wooed by better wages where she earned $3 a day.

“I came up on the farm. I knew nothing but cotton-picking when I came out here,” she said. “I picked beans. They grow a lot of beans here.”

Four generations of Smiths followed.

She, like many of the blacks who moved to the valley before Civil Rights, first lived on John Nobles' ranch. Nobles was an Oklahoma sharecropper who moved to Indio in 1922.

“John Nobles' ranch was the only place where colored could stay,” she said. “Everybody got along real nice. There was a sense of community.”

Although the valley schools were integrated, Smith said blacks still faced racism and discrimination, a history that should not be lost on the young.

“Lord thank you somebody woke up,” she said. “God is good. God says, if he's with you, who can be against you?

“We climbing.”

‘Preserve the dream'

When Joseph Beaver moved to the Coachella Valley, no one would rent a room to a black man.

“Segregation invited so much degradation,” said Beaver, 87, a local historian and president of the Black Historical and Cultural Society.

“It's based on skin color. It's sinister.”

During Black History month, Beaver is an in-demand speaker as a longtime civil rights supporter.

He attended the march on Washington, D.C. when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and considers himself a follower of nonviolent civil protest, which culminated in the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Despite the country's advances in equality, though, Beaver called the fight today an ongoing struggle.

“The history of black people has been too often simply ignored,” he said.

He rattles off some of the contributions like a young boy counts change.

Dr. Charles Drew, who developed the technique for long-term preservation of blood plasma.

Garrett Morgan, the son of former slaves, who invented the gas mask and a traffic signal.

Lawrence Crossley, who designed the Coachella Valley's first golf course.

A longtime civil rights supporter, Beaver was instrumental in helping rename Coachella Valley roads for black figures such as Crossley and Rosa Parks, whom he helped bring to the valley in 1993.

In 1980, he also helped organize a protest against David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan.

“We must preserve the dream and keep marching forward so the dream comes to fruition,” he said during a Black History Month event at the Tolerance Education Center in Rancho Mirage this month.

“We must not allow the dream to derail or be forgotten.”